On Batman, beauty, and ’Wind in the Willows’
Ever since I was old enough to listen and learn - and eventually to read - I’ve enjoyed memorizing things.
It probably started with the “Batman” theme song on TV.
I somehow realized it wasn’t enough to sing “Batman! Batman! Batman!” over and over like kids at school were doing. I knew it was important -- really important -- that you sang them the correct number of times. Eleven times, to be precise. Four times to begin with, evenly spaced out along with the music, then in two clusters of three. Then, after the singers have finally joined in exuberantly on that iconic “Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da! (exactly thirteen of those ”da“s, by the way), there’s one last ear-splittingly harmonized ”BATMAN!“
It was important, I realized, that if you were going to do it, you did it right. And I took a certain pride, at six-year of age, in having done the extra work to learn it correctly.
For years to follow, I would occasionally set out to memorize all kinds of odd things, perfectly willing to learn short stuff or lengthy stuff, easy and/or challenging. In third grade, I memorized the lyrics to every song on the “Dr. Dolittle” soundtrack. Even the boring ones. By the age of eight, I’d become reasonably good at mimicking the singing styles of both Rex Harrison and Anthony Newley. For the record, singing like Anthony Newley on the school playground gets you beat up more often than singing like Rex Harrison. Just so you know.
In fifth grade, when my family began going to church regularly, I memorized “Amazing Grace,” forwards AND backwards.
“Me like wretch a saved that sound the sweet how grace amazing.”
While that didn’t get me beat up in Sunday school, it didn’t make me a lot of friends, either. Still, on some deep level, I knew that what I was doing by taking on these random memorization challenges was probably going to pay off, because it took a lot of effort and concentration, goal-setting and tenacity and follow-through. And those are good things, right?
Admittedly, there was a level of “show off” in it, I suppose. Later, in high school, one teacher required all of her students to memorize and recite the William Ernest Henley poem “Invictus” (“It matters not how straight the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the Master of my fate, I am the Captain of my soul”), and it was then I began to realize that memorization of poems like that and suiting up for P.E. bore striking similarities.
They were both hard and not hard at the same time. Running a mile isn’t really complicated, and either is memorizing a poem, or a song or a monologue. Memorization is not magic, or rocket science or brain surgery, though I suppose it comes in handy with all of those things. Memorization, be it of a poem or a phone number, is just good old-fashioned work. Like running a mile, it simply requires you to take one repetitive step after another for as long as necessary till you cross the finish line. And for what it’s worth, running circles around a high school track is a great time to mentally recite whatever it is I was working to memorize at that moment.
Speaking of which, also in High School, as part of a Bible as Literature class, I once memorized the entire text of “Song of Solomon” in the Old Testament. I was not alone. It was, after all, a school project, suggesting we approach biblical passages as poetry. But while other kids were memorizing Psalms and Proverbs and the sermon on the mount, I was the only kid in the class brazen enough to memorize the one book of the Bible where I got to stand up and recite ecstatic descriptions of sex, including things like, “Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor; thy belly is like a heap of wheat set about with lilies; thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins.”
For what it’s worth, I got an A+.
Memorizing things is still something I enjoy, and commit myself to regularly, often for so reason other than to give those mental muscles a workout and keep them in shape. Having long ago become immersed in the world of theater, I have also, of course, been required to commit countless lines in countless plays to memory.
For a performer, the big one, the Boston Marathon of memorization, is learning a one-person-show. That’s usually about 75-minutes of non-stop talking, learned word-for-word. Few things are scarier or more rewarding, for the satisfaction of the challenge alone.
But in between shows - as just about every person is right now - it’s still important to memorize things, just as its important to stay in shape in between races. So during the recent shut-down of theaters, I’ve stayed the course. And I have to say, nothing has been quite as challenging as memorizing the 3800 words that is Kenneth Graham’s “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” otherwise known as chapter 7 of “The Wind in the Willows.”